By Gill Pringle

Already tagged as a big budget failure due to its disappointing box office returns in the US, the business sense in remaking the 1959 classic, Ben-Hur, is now being questioned even more loudly than it was when the project was first announced. But even though the long, long shadow of the Charlton Heston-starring traditional Biblical epic still hangs perilously low over 2016’s Ben-Hur, the film’s producer, Roma Downey (who mounted the film with her husband and Survivor co-creator, Mark Burnett, after they reaped enormous dividends with their hugely popular faith-based TV mini-series, The Bible), was always of the belief that it was ready to be retold for a new generation. “When Mark and I went home and told our three children that we were going to be working on Ben-Hur, we thought that they’d be saying, ‘Wow, Ben-Hur?’ But instead, they said, ‘Ben who?’ So yes, there are people who remember the 1959 film, and who will come and want to see it, but there’s a whole new generation for whom this is a completely fresh story. And the way that it’s been told is very, very gritty and exciting. [Director] Timur [Bekmambetov] has really brought this story into 2016. He has made it relatable and accessible and very exciting for a modern audience.”

The film’s director, Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Day Watch, Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), was slightly more reticent to take the reins on a new version of Ben-Hur. “At first, I didn’t think that it was a good idea, but then I read the script,” the Russian filmmaker says. “I read John Ridley’s script, because he’s one of the best. He won an Oscar for 12 Years A Slave. The script is always what motivates me. That’s what motivated me to make it. Suddenly, it clicks. It clicks, and then there was no time to think about what we’ve seen before. It was just a problem of how to find the right place, how to find the best cast, how to find the best actors, how to talk to Morgan Freeman, how to talk him into the project, and how to train the horses. It’s everyday business, and you don’t have time to think, ‘Maybe this is a mistake.’”

Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell in Ben-Hur
Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell in Ben-Hur

And for Timur Bekmambetov, Ben-Hur remains a very contemporary movie, despite its chariot races, gladiators, Roman centurions, and guest-starring Jesus Christ. “I can only talk about our movie,” the director says, again referring to the difficulties in mounting a remake. “Our movie will be very different from all other period costume dramas, because it’s not that kind of film. It’s really a drama. It’s a very contemporary movie. It will be talking about today’s problems, because we live in a very dangerous world, and we’re right on the edge. It’s exactly like it was 2,000 years ago…people are trying to buy more, and trying to have more, and trying to compete. It feels like the whole world is on the edge, and we need to find something new for ourselves. It’s a very contemporary movie…it’s about how we all have very different values. Think of the internet, for example: that’s a place where there are very different values. People are happy to share, it’s about friends, and it’s not about how much you have. It’s about how many people you can talk to, and people creating millions of hours of content and uploading on YouTube for free. It’s very new. It’s something new happening today, and this movie is very contemporary because it’s talking about different values. It’s not talking about competition, it’s talking about collaboration. It’s not about revenge, it’s about forgiveness. It’s about how we can learn to talk to each other and understand each other.”

Ben-Hur is released in cinemas on August 25. Click through for our interviews with Ben-Hur stars, Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell.


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